“Yoga saved my life” may sound like common hyperbole, until you hear the story of Walter Mugbe. Growing up in Kenya, his mother had little money to support her five children, so Mugbe took it upon himself to try and make a living. At 7 years old. Unfortunately, the fastest way to make a buck was by being a transport for drug dealers and pick pocketing the people of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, a dangerous routine which got a few of his friends “killed by the mob.”
“I knew I was going to be the next person to die,” Mugbe told NPR. But after taking free yoga classes offered by the Africa Yoga Project, his life took a turn for the better, he says.
“I felt so free and safe at that moment,” he says. He was always on the run in his criminal life. And now, his worries were gone. “I felt light, like something was weighing me down and all of a sudden I felt free. It was a brand new experience for me.”
Walter Mugbe kept taking yoga classes.
Some family members and friends thought he was getting into a crazy cult. That didn’t bother him because he loved yoga. Eventually he gave up his criminal activities. He looked at who he was and who he wanted to become. “It was tough to face the truth,” he says.
Besides offering the tools of yoga, Africa Yoga Project also teaches students how to become yoga teachers themselves so they can continue to share the practice with friends, neighbors and local citizens who wouldn’t have access otherwise. For Mugbe, becoming one of AYP’s 100 teachers ultimately provided him with an alternative and much more positive path.
As you might imagine, teaching yoga in Kenya is a lot different from teaching yoga in the U.S. – the fact that it’s hot there (so, you know, no heated classes) is just one example. Visiting Washington D.C. this summer, Mugbe experienced some other interesting differences as we learn from his NPR interview.
Here in D.C. the majority of his students are women — that’s pretty much the norm in the West. In Kenya, he says, yoga is a guy thing. Men like the physical nature of it. But the Africa Yoga Project is training female teachers and persuading girls to take classes.
While some Western practitioners don’t want to be touched by their teacher to adjust a pose, that’s not a problem in Nairobi: “People love to be touched in Africa,” Mugbe says.
We imagine there aren’t too many Lululemon shops to trip over there either (yet?).
With yoga organizations (Off the Mat is another) on missions to bring yoga to other countries, many a lot poorer than the West, there’s the hope that their approach is also sensitive to the cultural and societal landscape, and not a life-saving “crazy cult” infiltrating their villages. In the case of Africa Yoga Project, so far we’ve seen a majority of good coming out of their presence in Kenya, including job growth, which is maybe not so different from the rest of the world after all.